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Erotic Milk, Fur Tech, and the Afterlife: A Stern Discussion About ‘Cats’

Once in a while, a movie so unsettlingly bizarre comes along that you can only look to the sky and say, “Why?” This is one such movie—but instead of petitioning the gods above, three Ringer staffers found solace in each other’s horror/confusion.

Universal Pictures/Ringer illustration

Upon the release of the first trailer for Cats, Tom Hooper’s CGI-filled adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, The Ringer’s Kate Halliwell asked, “What fresh hell is this?” Well, hell hath come—Cats was unleashed on Friday on an unsuspecting nation, leading to only more confusion, nausea, and terror. Because they all willingly saw the movie—and now share an unbreakable bond—Ringer staffers Alyssa Bereznak, Amelia Wedemeyer, and Kjerstin Johnson were asked to discuss their impressions and wade through their trauma.

Alyssa Bereznak: First, let’s talk about the cats. The movie’s “digital fur technology” was a topic of much discussion leading up to Cats’ release. When Universal shared the first trailer in July, the internet briefly lost its mind over the uncanny CGI effects used to transform Idris Elba, et al. THEN, during opening weekend, Universal sent thousands of theaters an updated version of the film with “some improved visual effects.” (None of which, to my knowledge, included the restoration of Jason Derulo’s manhood.) Which version did you see, and on a scale of one to six years, how much therapy do you need to work through your feelings about it?

Amelia Wedemeyer: Wow, well, unfortunately for me, I believe I saw the updated version, but honestly, who knows at this point! In terms of therapy, I don’t think there’s a therapist in the world who’s well equipped enough to deal with what I went through—and I mean that in a good, “I am ENTERTAINED” way. [Russell Crowe voice.] Were you all not entertained?

Kjerstin Johnson: I saw the first version and feel confident saying no “improved effects” will save it. Let me be clear: This movie never should have been made. Even if Cats was an alleged hit in the 1980s, it didn’t need a revival. I joked on Twitter that Cats had a plot, but I was lying—it has no plot. It is an adaptation of a poetry book, there are no moral messages to impart to viewers, and only one track, “Memory,” resembles a song. The movie and musical are best understood through a brilliant Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Season 4 bit: Cats is completely made up, and the actors just “do some poppers and say whatever comes to mind.”

Bereznak: I was entertained, but only in a “I’m trying to solve a hard math problem and also extremely high” sort of way. I have no idea which version I saw; everyone’s hands looked weird to me the entire time because … they weren’t paws. The problem with the fur is that it covers obviously human bodies. I would’ve much preferred if everyone were extremely fluffy, à la Judi Dench. But the slick-style coats, as displayed on Rebel Wilson, Taylor Swift, and many other actors I barely recognized under the CGI, forced me to acknowledge the contours of their bodies, and then, inevitably—because I am only human!!—to scan their nether regions. (Especially since a few select cats were inexplicably clothed.) At times it felt like a Gaspar Noé movie. No movie’s wardrobe should force us to think this hard about each character’s genitalia!

Wedemeyer: Totally agree—the slick-style cats were much more distracting than the fluffy, Maine coon–esque version of Dame Judi Dench’s character, who was literally named Old Deuteronomy. I also thought the whole emphasis on the cat boobs—the accentuation in their outline, the shaking of them—was a little heavy-handed. Like, we get it, there are lady cats! They are “sexy”! We are “titillated”!

Bereznak: On that note I would also like to point out that Elba’s fur, which had no pattern and most resembled his human skin color, made it look like he was straight-up naked the whole time. In theory, I would welcome the thought of a naked Idris Elba galavanting around the tops of skyscrapers. In reality, the fur ruined it for me.

Johnson: Judi Dench looked incredible; regal, fluffy, and unbothered. I found the digital fur distracting only in how I kept thinking about how much this unnecessary production cost. (Answer: $95 million. So far the movie has made $10.7 million, and a hapless video effects team had to work around the clock for the upgrade—for what?!)

Wedemeyer: Wait … you guys don’t want to bone this?

Universal Pictures

Bereznak: Unsettling erotic fur technology aside, were there any musical numbers where you were able to suspend your discomfort and just enjoy yourself?

Johnson: I enjoyed myself the entire film, don’t get me wrong. But Rebel Wilson’s “The Old Gumbie Cat” was a highlight. “Yes,” I thought as she unzipped her cat skin to reveal that she was wearing human clothes over … a second cat skin. “This is what I came to see.”

There were mice—the cats of the Cats universe?—who had the faces of children. There were cockroaches who were the same size as the mice. Plus, the song is a little catchy, which is 100 percent, absolutely not a thing you can say about any of the other songs.

Wedemeyer: Speaking of Rebel Wilson, can I just say that I straight-up can’t get over the fact that her character’s name is JENNYANYDOTS. Iconic. In fact, all the names in Cats are iconic—from Jason Derulo’s Rum Tum Tugger (I’m screaming) to James Corden’s Bustopher Jones (his cat would be named BUSTOPHER) to Taylor Swift’s Bombalurina ($20 says that’s the name of her next Scottish Fold). Their names are just the cherry on top of the whole bizarre ice cream sundae that is Cats.

Johnson: You know why the names are iconic? BECAUSE THEY WERE WRITTEN IN 1939 BY T.S. ELIOT—OF THE WASTE LAND, T.S. ELIOT—WHERE THEY SHOULD HAVE STAYED.

Wedemeyer: T.S. Eliot, you mad genius, you.

Bereznak: Though I appreciate weird pet names, in this case they added to my overall confusion during the film. I probably understood like 70 percent of the words being sung at any given time. Jennifer Hudson’s performance of “Memory” was oddly moving, though. Not because I connected to the backstory of her character—my best guess was she was a formerly glamorous cat who got injured and therefore turned to a life of prostitution?—but because I imagined she was singing about a time before the making of Cats, when she was happy.

Wedemeyer: Definitely agree with you about Jennifer Hudson’s “Memory.” She’s so talented, and one of the only true, lasting stars to come out of American Idol. I mean, if we’re being completely honest, Jennifer Hudson is such a talented singer that she pretty much won that Oscar for Dreamgirls solely because of her performance of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.” Her ability to bring an emotional weight to a musical, however flimsy, is something very few people are capable of.

Johnson: You know how I could tell “Beautiful Ghosts,” the song the female catagonoist sings back to Hudson, was contemporary and not from the original soundtrack? It was coherent.

Universal Pictures

Bereznak: Kjerstin, I’m tempted to ask you to explain the Rum Tum Tugger song, but maybe it’s best if we just move on and neuralyze his erotic milk bar scene from our minds? But that leads me to my next question: What about the movie will most haunt you?

Johnson: Alyssa, I’m glad you brought up the milk—it’s like they were horny for it. From that number forward, I wanted to leave my body anytime a character drank it.

Bereznak: [Extremely Auto-Tuned Jason Derulo voice.] This cat fu-uucks.

Johnson: It also brings up the issue of the adaptation. Sorry to keep going back to Eliot, but you can absolutely buy a wonderful used copy of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats illustrated by Edward Gorey and be delighted and charmed—it’s just a book of whimsy on the imagined inner lives of our feline friends. The cats do not fuck, and it’s completely kid friendly. When Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted it, things got weird. You don’t have to look far for children’s accounts of being traumatized by the dark (and audience-involved) stage production. And I’ll be real—calling dying “going to the heaviside layer” is fucking chilling.

Bereznak: Wait … THAT’S what “the heaviside layer” means? Like ALL of the cats are competing to DIE?? I thought Jennifer Hudson was just flying to a nice suburb nearby.

Johnson: LOL. Yeah, it was not a competition to take a hot-air balloon ride.

Bereznak: It’s probably for the best that a mother and her 5-year-old son walked out of my showing halfway through.

Wedemeyer: Yes, “heaviside layer” is fucked up. It’s like Old Deuteronomy is part of some death cult stuff.

Johnson: [Extremely Auto-Tuned Jason Derulo voice.] This cat is ti-red (of its mortal existence).

Universal Pictures

Bereznak: OK, I know I keep coming back to the actual look of the movie, but there are so many incongruous visual elements of this film—the fur, the shifting proportions of the actors to the set and props, the fact that some cats wear additional clothes—that I often felt like a calibrating GPS system, constantly trying to make sense of the new environment. If you could’ve tweaked one thing about the atmosphere to make the movie better, what would you have done?

Johnson: How improved would the movie have been if just for two seconds a human had appeared, seen the cats, and been like “What the fuck”?

Wedemeyer: That would’ve been great. Or, if it turned out to be the dream of an indoor cat who went under for some surgery. Maybe the cat was getting spayed/neutered, and that’s why there were so many slick-styled cats featured …

Johnson: I love it. The one time “it was all a dream” would totally make sense and improve the entire production.

Bereznak: Any wink at the audience to say “We know this is crazy,” would’ve been deeply appreciated. Given the occasional human clothing items the cats wore, I suppose that now we all know where Tom Hooper falls on the “How would a dog wear pants?” meme. But how great would it have been if the train cat had to wear his suspenders the other way?

Bereznak: As a cat owner—or merely avid admirer—do you have anything to say to Tom Hooper?

Johnson: I’m less worried about my cat and more concerned about any other Broadway IP he is eyeing.

Wedemeyer: I would like to thank Tom Hooper for meeting my expectations. When I heard they were making a Cats adaptation a year or so ago, I thought back to when it was announced that Bradley Cooper was remaking A Star Is Born with Lady Gaga a couple years prior, and how, at the time, I thought, “Wow, that’s gonna be a full-scale disaster, and I’m HERE FOR IT!” I had the same initial thoughts regarding Cats, however, instead of having the ASIB experience and being blown away by how incredible the movie was (Jackson Maine 4ever), my expectations of watching a shit show were met. So, thank you, Tom, for two-ish hours of enjoyable nonsense.

Bereznak: The power of meme marketing! To Amelia and Kjerstin, I thank you for seeing this movie, and for re-living it with me. To Tom, I kindly submit this poem, loosely based on the “Ad-dressing of Cats” song that closes the movie:

A cat lover’s entitled to expect
Small evidences of respect
So Cats the film makes some sense
And fans, not haunted by its events